Open Rates Deserve Far More Respect Than They Get

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The open rate, quite simply, measures how many of your HTML e-mails registered as opened.


But what does this number really tell you? Does it mean the opened e-mail was read? No.


Does it indicate the recipient even skimmed the first line? No.


All we can say with certainty is that all e-mails that were read were opened.


So much for our open rate? Hardly.


The mechanics of measuring. E-mail marketing produces quantities of raw data about reader activity. But that alone doesn't help us remove the friction points. The ability to measure something doesn't automatically translate into relevance. We can take informed action only when we understand what the interrelationships among the raw data mean. The open rate of e-mails always has been controversial because nobody is sure what the number actually measures.


Add to the problem that Web marketers tend to obsess and waste a lot of time and resources trying to make something of absolutes, when the relative usually offers more insight. Knowing we had 249,963 click-throughs last week doesn't give us nearly the same amount of information as knowing that during the past week our number of visitors dropped 10 percent.


When we measure in Web analytics, it doesn't really matter whether the number is strictly accurate. What matters is that we measure it as cleanly as possible and then stick to measuring it the same way every time. We are not particularly interested in a specific number, but in how that number changes over time. So make sure your business has standard internal definitions of what you measure and a standard means of measurement, and then stick with them.


Open rates translate into conversion rates. As marketers, we have goals for our e-mail campaigns, which could include a purchase, a subscription, an update or simply a brand-building exercise. As long as we pre-define how we will measure success, all of these can be expressed in terms of conversion.


The result of all e-mail communication allows for four possibilities that are not mutually exclusive. E-mails can inform. They can build relationships. They can persuade action. They can get ignored. Did I say, "get ignored?" We know it happens, so listing it as an outcome helps us think through the biggest challenge in e-mail marketing.


The key to avoiding getting ignored lies in how we perceive conversion. Most marketers measure conversion by the complete macro-action they want readers to take (e.g., how many people made a purchase, subscribed, registered, etc). However, the journey to every macro-action consists of a series of smaller micro-actions. Before readers reach the ultimate action, they have to make any number of decisions, conscious or unconscious, to take action. Thus, when the recipient opens an e-mail, that act constitutes a successful micro-action conversion: the recipient has been converted into someone one step closer to reading the message within. Each micro-action, or omission thereof, is a potential gaping hole in the leaky bucket of your overall conversion process.


So what do open rates actually measure? Every good e-mail should start by focusing on one action -- persuade the recipient to open the e-mail. Open rates are at the top of our conversion funnel, the point where we have the largest potential readership for our message (one heck of a place for a major leak). But once the mail is opened, the recipient is primed to move to the next micro-action in the conversion process.


This may seem obscenely common-sensical, but conversion rates routinely suffer because marketers neglect driving micro-actions and maintaining momentum throughout the communication process. Thorough planning lets us develop the path of each e-mail's conversion process, identify the necessary micro-actions within, then design and optimize the most effective call to action for each step.


Let's identify some factors -- all of which the recipient evaluates before committing to that very first click -- that affect open rates:


· Does the recipient recognize the sender?


· Does the recipient acknowledge a relationship with the sender?


· Is this relationship valuable to the recipient?


· To whom is the e-mail addressed?


· To which e-mail account is it sent?


· Does the recipient recognize where the sender got the address?


· Has the sender addressed the "to" line correctly?


· Has the e-mail been personalized in a way the recipient understands and accepts?


· Does the subject line matter to the context of the relationship?


· Does the subject line tell recipients something they need to know?


· Does the subject line arouse their curiosity?


· Does the subject line speak to an emotions-based need?


AIDA -- Back to basics. Remember AIDA? No, I'm not talking about the opera or the Broadway play, but the acronym for Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. AIDA creates the sales momentum on both the micro-level and macro-level.


All the elements that contribute to the recipient's first reaction to an e-mail and influence the decision to open constitute the first test for our successful implementation of AIDA.


Do we get the potential reader's attention, arouse an interest, stimulate desire and provide a call for action?


We know the answer is no if the e-mail isn't opened.


And that means no matter how well crafted the rest of the message, it disappears into the black hole of cyberspace with nothing more than a click of the delete button.


The open rate may be just a number, but it is telling us something meaningful. Are you taking advantage of what your open rate is measuring?


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